One of the pleasures of Italian food is how well it satisfies, whether prepared at its simplest or its most sophisticated. From all-American pizzeria-style pies to refined regional recipes, it's all pretty tasty, and the decided emphasis on carbs means an Italian meal always sticks to your ribs.
Our favorite kind of Italian restaurant is one that hits the sweet spot in the center of this spectrum: the casual eatery whose unassuming menu of pizzas or pasta is prepared with exquisite ingredients and care. Such a restaurant is Cucina Bella, on the border of Bridgeville and Upper St. Clair. Located in a little roadside building, it consists of a pair of rooms furnished with a surprisingly successful mix of chunky, farmhouse-style wood tables and sleeker, more modern pieces in black and chrome. Walls painted deep red and gold evoke the Old World, but a classic penny-farthing bicycle (with the giant front wheel) mounted on one wall and old, framed engineering blueprints suggest a pleasant industrial-age nostalgia that doesn't rely on murky pictures of smoky steel mills.
At first glance, the menu was typical of any contemporary pizzeria. There were pizzas plus panini sandwiches, salads and a couple of entrees. But the Italian language on the menu turned out to be more than a mere nod to ethnic pride; it was a reflection of a kitchen that draws its inspiration from Italian cooking much more than from American pizza-parlor traditions.
Of the half-dozen dishes we tried, only le polpette di Joanna — Mom's meatballs — was representative of Italian-American cooking. Chef (and Joanna's son) Carmen Pirain more typically builds dishes from classic Italian components like San Marzano tomatoes and shaved Parmigiano reggiano (no powdery, canned Parmesan here) with a modern American commitment to fresh ingredients and an open-minded, thoughtful approach to flavor profiles.
Cucina Bella's insalata followed a simple formula: greens, fruit, cheese, perhaps another protein such as prosciutto or nuts, and balsamic vinaigrette. The variation was in the kinds and combinations of these ingredients. Therefore, a special salad of arugula, dried cranberries, candied walnuts, goat cheese and balsamic dressing was both similar to and quite distinct from all the other salads on offer. And it was delicious, with sweet-tart cranberries, meaty nuts and tangy goat cheese all in balanced counterpoint to the bed of juicy, peppery arugula. This salad was large, flavorful and filling enough to be a light meal.
The aforementioned meatballs were tasty and tender, but what really stood out was the pool of dark, rich tomato sauce they came in. Modern fashions tend toward light, bright tomato sauces, but this throwback reminded us why "slow and low" is the traditional cooking method. Without a hint of bitterness, and no apparent need for added sugar, the sauce was intense and satisfying, making us wish for more bread.
With more than a dozen pizza options, we wondered whether it was best to start with the simple and familiar (traditional tomato and cheese, or margherita); try the slightly more sophisticated combinations (arugula and prosciutto, four cheese); or go for an advanced offering that really opens the eyes (rosemary and pistachios, ricotta, sausage, and green olives).
We began in the middle with toppings of fresh mozzarella, gorgonzola, Parmigiano, ricotta and extra-virgin olive oil. The crust was crisp at the edges and slightly chewy, a superb foundation for the balanced mix of pungent gorgonzola, stretchy mozzarella, sharp Parmigiano and creamy ricotta. As a grace note, we appreciated the basil leaves on top, translucent but still a vibrant green from a quick blast of heat.
A special pizza, torta di Dom, really bowled us over with dollops of mascarpone, a slightly sweet Italian version of cream cheese, that flooded the mouth with a round richness almost like whipped cream. Thin slices of prosciutto pulled the flavor back to savory: The tension between the richness of the cheese and the salty, smoky meat made this pizza irresistible.
Panini is generally made with sliced bread that's pressed and toasted, but the kitchen here used a hoagie roll, which has the virtue of being neither bland nor gum-punishing. But it was the sausage and pepper filling that really stood out. First, we'd like to praise Pirain for thinly slicing the sausage so that it could be distributed in the sandwich, rather than leaving it as a whole link plunked upon the middle of the bread. Secondly, we'd like to praise the assertive flavors of the sausage, the peppers and the onions. Together, they achieved a heat more complex and satisfying than any single dose of spice could deliver.
Entrees are where even the best pizzerias can fall back on smothering something in sauce and calling it a meal. But Cucina Bella steps up: There are only two entrees, and those, like the salads, are variations on a theme, in this case chicken. But each is a glorious combination of ingredients that reveal inspiration in the kitchen. Pollo San Remo includes prosciutto, artichokes and a balsamic glaze, but we chose the pollo Gavinucci with its red onion, artichokes and blood-orange reduction. The chicken breast was tender and moist, lightly grilled to add a bit of flavor, and beautifully topped with the slightly sweet orange sauce, the juice tempered with herbs. The accompanying vegetables added bright and lively notes, while a bed of wilted spinach kept things grounded.
Come to think of it, "bright," "lively" and "grounded" are three excellent words to describe Cucina Bella itself.